The Complete Guide on Cortisol

Cortisol molecular structure

Why Elevated Cortisol Levels are Disastrous for Men over 40

Modern-day life for men can be hugely stressful and downright difficult to deal with regularly. There’s your career, your family, and the go-go pace of today’s world. Heck, with modern technology, it can be almost impossible to escape it all—emails, phone calls, and text messages at all hours. What’s a guy to do?

Even worse, all of this stress can negatively impact your healthy hormonal balance.

Every time you feel that stress building, your body is pumping out loads and loads of a stress response hormone called cortisol.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone created or synthesized from cholesterol. It is produced in the adrenal glands and released during times of stress.

One may assume that cortisol is 100% bad due to its association with stress. However, cortisol is not inherently bad. In fact, it is a vital hormone for numerous reasons. Cortisol is necessary for:

  • Immune Function
  • Mood Regulation
  • Memory

For millennia, cortisol was critical to keeping our ancestors alive and well. That’s because this hormone triggers the “fight or flight” response in humans. In the short term, it can increase your mental alertness and even physical strength, allowing you to escape imminent danger.

Yet, in today’s day and age, high levels of cortisol can accumulate due to non-life-threatening stressors. And over time, it can severely damage your hormonal balance.

Cortisol’s Relationship with Testosterone & Estrogen

Cholesterol is the precursor to cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen production. The state of your body and mind can dictate which hormone is created from cholesterol. For example, you’ll produce higher cortisol levels, and less testosterone, when you’re stressed out.

Cortisol is especially damaging to testosterone levels, the most critical hormone for male health. With high cortisol levels, testosterone, and all of the wonderful benefits we derive from it, will suffer.

overtraining and cortisol

Stress and Cortisol

Stress can be both good and bad. Your body can’t differentiate between the two regarding cortisol production. Sometimes, stress is necessary to avoid life-threatening situations or to meet an important deadline. No matter the reason for your stress, your body responds by upping cortisol production.

Both physical and psychological stressors can cause cortisol levels to rise. There are two primary types of stress:

  • Acute Stress – This occurs directly after a stressful event. If you almost get into a car accident and your heart rate elevates, that is an acute stress response. If you slip on some ice and nearly fall, that is an acute stress response. It’s a natural reaction to heighten our senses and awareness when needed.
  • Chronic Stress – This occurs from a prolonged experience that keeps cortisol elevated longer than it should. It could be from a toxic relationship, a job you hate, or financial hardship. Regardless, this form of stress is most common today. Additionally, it’s the most damaging form of stress.

Chronic stress, and the long-term elevations in cortisol that come with it, are what you want to avoid. If you don’t learn to manage your stress levels, you’ll be dealing with potentially serious health issues down the road, including plummeting testosterone levels.

Why is Cortisol Released When We’re Stressed?

When your adrenal glands flood your system with cortisol, it results in a massive increase in energy. This energy gain occurs due to two processes:

  • Gluconeogenesis – the production of glucose (carbohydrates/sugar) from other substrates.
  • Lipolysis – the breakdown of stored fats into individual fatty acids.

This makes sense when looking at it from an evolutionary perspective. There was a time when avoiding predators was commonplace for our species. We needed the energy required to run away, hence the increase in adrenaline and the liberation of carbs/fats for fuel.

While we no longer fear for our safety in that particular way, the stress response is still a prominent feature of life. Modern society is full of situations that require our undivided attention and immediate action.

This constant stimulation can lead to higher levels of chronic stress for many of us. The resulting high cortisol levels can have many damaging health outcomes, especially for aging men.

Symptoms of High Cortisol

The easiest-to-identify symptom of high cortisol is increased body fat, particularly in the abdominal and facial regions. These specific areas are prime for rapid increases in body fat because they are full of cortisol receptors.

If you notice an increase in belly fat or plumpness in the face, but no noticeable fat gain in your arms or legs, it may be due to cortisol. Other symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • High blood pressure

While elevated cortisol levels are a natural immune system response to stress, chronically high cortisol can actually seriously weaken your immune system. If you find yourself getting sick more often than usual, you may have chronically high cortisol.

Infographic showing signs of high cortisol

How to Manage High Cortisol Levels

Many people take the wrong approach when it comes to managing cortisol. Cortisol production is inevitable due to acute stress and is even healthy in small doses. As you know, stressful events will always occur, many of which are unexpected.

You’re likely to experience a stressful event multiple times per day. It could be something as minor as spilling your coffee or getting into a verbal argument with someone close to you.

Regardless, the response will be the same. Your body will produce more cortisol to cope with the feelings of stress. And these cortisol fluctuations over time can be massive. A study on college students showed a ninefold increase in cortisol during exams compared to a baseline measurement taken 40 days prior.1

The key is not to blunt the cortisol response but to keep the spike in stress hormones as brief as possible. Otherwise, you’re dealing with chronic stress, which can lead to health issues, such as:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease.2

But how do we keep these spikes in cortisol brief?

Decreasing Cortisol Levels During Stressful Situations

Stress begins with the activation of your “fight or flight” response. With that comes the inactivation of the “rest and digest” response. In order to reduce cortisol levels, we want the opposite to occur.

When we get stressed, the best way to reduce cortisol levels is to shorten our “fight or flight” response and activate our “rest and digest” response. And there’s a very easy, scientifically proven way to do this.

Clinical studies show that very specific breathing exercises can significantly improve how your body responds to stress. These breathing exercises involve a short inhale and a long, drawn-out exhale.

This breathing exercise is not simply a generic meditation practice. Instead, it creates a biological feedback loop between the brain, heart, and diaphragm, slowing your heart rate and calming your body down.

Sleep and cortisol

How Sleep Patterns can Affect Cortisol Levels

Naturally, your highest levels of cortisol should occur in the morning. This peak in cortisol is necessary to wake you up and increase overall alertness. And, as would be expected, your lowest levels of cortisol should be in the evenings, when you’re ready to wind down and get ready for bed.

When cortisol levels are out of whack, low in the mornings and peaking in the evenings, this can have a detrimental effect on aging men, leading to:

  • Slower metabolism
  • Poor immune functions
  • Inflammation throughout the body3
  • Higher estrogen production
  • Lower testosterone production
  • Physical, emotional, and sexual health problems, and
  • Insomnia

All of which leaves us feeling like grumpy old men, way before we should.

Getting Better Sleep can get Cortisol Levels Back on Track

You can help your body to regulate cortisol levels by getting sunlight as soon as possible upon waking. This sunlight serves as an indication to the body that it is morning. At night, you can avoid bright lights from computer screens and phones. The lack of light signals your internal clock that it is time to lower cortisol production and prepare for sleep.

Healthy sleep patterns aren’t just responsible for improving cortisol balance. Good sleep is critical for recovery from workouts, cognitive function, and overall energy.

Infographic showing diets effects on cortisol

Dieting and its Effects on Cortisol

The release of cortisol leads to an immediate increase in energy. This energy comes from two sources:

  1. The stored carbohydrates found in the liver and muscle (glycogen)
  2. The stored fats in adipose tissue

When dieting, caloric restriction leads to a higher demand for energy. Your body must still complete all necessary tasks, just with fewer calories. As a result of that stress, your cortisol levels increase and stored nutrients are released in the blood for use.

A meta-analysis on low carbohydrate diets showed an increase in resting cortisol levels in the short term.5

Exercise and cortisol

Cortisol and Exercise

In a study that compared free weight training with machine training, no differences were observed in cortisol levels.6 So, there appears to be no correlation between training style and cortisol release.

A meta-analysis on cortisol in response to exercise showed dramatic differences among participants.7 While it is safe to conclude that physical exercise will result in a cortisol increase, the level of such is highly variable.

Given the benefits of exercise, it’s unlikely that any medical professional will recommend removing it from your routine. The one exception may be overtraining.

Overtraining occurs when an individual experiences negative side effects directly from the exercise itself. These include:

  • Decreases in athletic performance
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Elevated resting heart rate

Overtraining, coupled with dieting, which also increases cortisol, can create a double whammy of cortisol production. If you’re dealing with this situation, you may want to take a few days off to get your cortisol levels back in balance.

The Effects of Alcohol on Cortisol

Regularly consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can trigger a stress response in your body. That natural response could significantly increase your cortisol levels.

According to a clinical study, alcohol consumption stimulates the release of cortisol.8 It can also elevate resting cortisol levels.

Effects of alcohol on cortisol

Another study showed a 3% increase in cortisol per unit of alcohol consumed.9 The increase in cortisol can reinforce the rewarding sensation from alcohol itself, leading to a vicious cycle. This is especially present in people who drink heavily.

As they say, “the proof is in the pudding”. Science tells us that alcohol consumption boosts cortisol production and damages your hormonal balance. Ideally, avoiding alcohol would be best for your hormonal health.

How to Measure Cortisol

Cortisol can be measured via a blood test. However, it may not be part of your typical blood panel. Standard blood panels will show familiar markers like:

  • Testosterone levels
  • Cholesterol
  • Red blood cell count

Cortisol readings may have to be specially ordered, so don’t go in for blood work, assuming you can get a cortisol check.

The reference range for cortisol is dependent on when your blood is drawn. As mentioned, cortisol is naturally elevated in the morning. The healthy range for a 9 AM blood draw differs significantly from that of a 9 PM sample.

Measuring cortisol can be tricky since it’s so volatile. Something as simple as being stressed because you’re late to your doctor’s appointment could affect your cortisol reading. This is why most medical professionals recommend testing multiple times per day. Unfortunately, this can be expensive and inconvenient.

Due to these cortisol fluctuations and testing issues, some researchers have theorized that a hair cortisol test may be the best measure of your average levels.

Not all Cortisol Fluctuations are Due to Stress

It’s important to note the difference between elevated cortisol due to stress and due to disease. The following disorders can also cause an imbalance in cortisol levels:

  • Cushing Syndrome is a disorder where too much cortisol is produced.
  • Addison’s Disease occurs when too little cortisol is made.
  • Cyclic Cushing Syndrome is a disorder that consists of erratic periods of high, average, and even low cortisol levels.

These disorders are due to dysregulation in the body, not environmental factors like stress (although stress may exacerbate them).

Unfortunately, because measuring cortisol is inefficient and unreliable, these disorders can be challenging to diagnose.

Supplements to lower cortisol

The Best Supplements to Reduce Cortisol

Since cortisol reduction doesn’t garner the same attention as something like testosterone production, there aren’t a lot of supplements on the market to regulate cortisol production.

Fortunately for us, there are a few quality supplements on the market that can help us get our cortisol levels in check. The best of these supplements incorporate all-natural ingredients clinically proven to reduce cortisol levels.

When researching supplements to regulate cortisol levels, look for the following ingredients. These have all been clinically shown to reduce the physiological changes cortisol brings.

1.   Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an ayurvedic herb that has recently gained notoriety in the health supplement world. Its reported benefits center around reducing stress and anxiety. It may also increase testosterone levels.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed significant decreases in cortisol in participants who regularly supplemented with ashwagandha.10

2.   Vitamin C

Vitamin C has provided mixed but promising results in lowering cortisol. It hasn’t shown any notable effect on resting cortisol levels but could mitigate post-exercise increases in cortisol.

A study on marathon runners showed a significant decrease in post-race cortisol levels for individuals who supplemented with 1,500mg of vitamin C.11

3.   L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found naturally in many types of tea. It is thought to have stress-reducing and anti-anxiety properties.

A recent study looked at the effects of L-theanine on healthy subjects faced with stress. The subjects who received a drink containing L-theanine had lower cortisol levels and lower levels of stress.12

The control group, which received a placebo, did not experience identical reductions in cortisol and stress.

This study shows that L-theanine can naturally reduce stress and cortisol and does not require consistent supplementation to be effective.

4.   Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is a natural compound thought to reduce stress and combat fatigue. A study on individuals with fatigue syndrome found lower cortisol levels after 28 days of supplementation.13 Participants reported no negative side effects.

If you’re interested in using supplements to get your hormone levels under control, be sure to use an all-natural supplement with ingredients such as these. The best supplements will always use ingredients that have clinical backing to prove efficacy.

Cortisol Isn’t Always Bad

Like every hormone in your body, cortisol serves a specific purpose. Your adrenal glands will naturally produce cortisol so that you can respond appropriately to a stressful event. When that event has passed, cortisol levels should rapidly decline to normal levels. The system is made to be tightly regulated in that way.

However, your system’s imbalance can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. This long-term imbalance can cause a slew of physical, emotional, and physical issues, such as:

  • Grumpiness
  • Fatigue
  • GI problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Low libido

And, even worse for us aging males, a cortisol imbalance can lead to a decrease in testosterone production and an increase in estrogen production. This, in turn, leads to even more physical, emotional, and sexual health problems.


Evaluating the stressors in your life is an excellent way to start fixing high cortisol production. Supplementation with natural, high-quality dietary supplements containing research-supported ingredients is also a good option.

While eliminating all stress is impossible, you can take measures to remove unnecessary sources of stress from your life. Chronic stress can negatively impact your physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological well-being.

If you’re feeling sad, out of shape, and stressed, high cortisol levels could be degrading your overall health. Get ahead of the issue and take the necessary steps to get your cortisol levels in check today. That way, you can be the healthiest, most vibrant version of yourself for years to come.















About Dr. Kaleb Redden DO, ABFP, CAQSM, CRP

Avatar photoDr. Kaleb N. Redden is the Team Doctor for PrimeGENIX and also the Chief Medical Officer for the Idaho High School Association, and acts as the State Deputy Commissioner for the Idaho Athletic Commission, he’s a Concussion Specialist for the St. Luke’s Health System and been a personal trainer for over 20 years!

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